Theatre and Psychology: A Skype chat with Dr. Mohan Agashe
Meandering conversations with the psychiatrist, actor and producer on the historical thread that ties playwrights and psychologists, the defeat of the language of love before Indian wives, the intellectual roots of egotism, the corrupting power of libraries and the true making of an artist.
Dr. Agashe, I can only see your forehead!
“Uh oh, what is this internet doing?”
No no, it’s because you’re gesturing while talking—
“It’s because I’m telling you a story! You know of M. F. Husain, yes? He made a film a long time ago, as a result of a fascination with Madhuri Dixit. It was called 'Gaja Gamini' (The One with the Elephant Walk, 2000). He sold some wonderful paintings to make money for this film. In ‘Gaja Gamini’, I played the great poet Kalidas travelling to the ghaats of Benaras. The movie cuts across time and space – this is cognitive. His bicycle basket has all his epic poems, its seat is made from a bull’s skull, and he walks alongside it.
On his way, he sees a scientist dressed in a South Indian pagdi and tie, reading The Times of India. Kalidas is surprised – an atheist in a pilgrimage place? What was he doing there?’ The camera pans and what do you see but a woman paying arghya to the rising sun, her eyes closed. Kalidas says, “Ahh, look. Here is a woman enjoying the colours of the rising sun. This is what I call faith. And in the same space is a man with eyes wide open, counting how many rays the sun has. This is what I call labour!” The scientist replies, “My dear poet, this fight will never end. Human beings need both. You tell me – what are you doing on the ghaats?”
Says Kalidas, “I don’t know. Last year when I visited here, I saw a woman at this exact time. The moment she appeared, everybody – from the youngest to the oldest – stopped doing whatever they were doing, mesmerised by her walk and beauty. I too was enchanted – when she left, the palace of my words had collapsed. As I was picking up my words, I started slowly recollecting her beauty.”
“Probably in another epic poem! Which one is it this time?” The scientist laughed.
“I don’t know. Maybe… Shakuntala?”
“What is it about?”
“I’m not sure, but to know more meet me in the forests of Kerala, where I now see her playing with elephants.”
The scientist gets upset. “This is unjust! You poets and painters write two lines, or draw two lines – it hardly takes a few moments – and we scientists have to spend a lifetime figuring out how you did it!”
Vijay Tendulkar wrote a play called 'Gidhade' (The Vultures) that makes a classic description of a psychopathic family. Tendulkar is a non-metric pass; he has never formally studied psychology, nor does he know the jargon to describe the characteristics of a psychopathic personality. However, the sketch and the relationships he wrote can be quoted as classics! Look at Satish Alekar’s play 'Mahapur' – a portrayal of a schizophrenic character who has hallucinations and delusions that manages to authentically replicate the phenomenology and symptomatology of schizophrenia!
It was the same with ‘Othello’ – the Othello Syndrome is a recognised one among psychiatrists to talk of delusional jealousy suspecting infidelity from faithful partners – because the person who wrote it formally knew nothing of psychiatry! Freud too got the ‘Oedipus complex’ from the Greek playwright Sophocles. How did Sophocles manage to turn Oedipus’ character into such an internal one, so nuanced with behavioural tendencies and mental anguishes? The answer: it was a product of the mind, and everything that is fiction is subject to analysis. This explains why psychiatrists spend their entire professional lives studying these creations and building theories from their readings!
The term ‘cognition’ is in the domain of intelligence. However, perception can go directly to the unconscious, and needn’t pass through my cognitive judgement. When you see films or plays, the sensory inputs are happening at three levels – conscious to subconscious to unconscious. What goes to the conscious will eventually go to the other two, because the go-down is always much bigger than the showroom!”
What about sensory output while performing?
“Very few performers today publicly admit that they are acting, which is I think a new phase and somewhat false. Why is this relevant? Because most of us have inculcated acting as our coping mechanism – it needn’t always be a performance for others. We carve out a space in real time and say – ‘This is a different time. A difference space.’
When you are performing for an audience and don’t separate that space from your ordinary life, we have a dilemma. I think that if you have a hangover of the role you are playing after exiting stage – the caveat of Method Acting – you are taking a non-refundable emotion loan from your personal life and using it in the service of the character. This isn’t always a good thing.
When you are in performance, you have to surrender your intelligence. Intelligence interferes with the performance. You can be intelligent before and after, but not during.”
What about younger performers who may never have felt these emotions personally, and take from literature and cinema and what they have seen?
“It’s good you asked me this – now I didn’t have to remember to ask you to ask me this!
What you say is true – you are young, and from the Age of Information. I have come from the Age of Experience. All that means is that I had a lot of experience about life before I had information about it. The process of collecting information was slow, and the means were very different. If you had a natural curiosity – if you were the kind of child who asked his parents ‘How was I born?’ only to be told ‘We’ll tell you when you’re older, you are too young to know!’ – information was usually dispensed in a sustained release capsule, like in prescriptions.
Now in your Age, the information is available at… what do you say?”
The click of a button.
“The click of a button! Now you have a lot of information without much experience. What I try to do is assess new information based on the experiences I’ve had. What you are doing is assessing your experiences on the basis of the information you already have! The processes have been reversed!
For example – the death of someone in the family. Before, you had very little information about dying, but you experienced loss. Today, you have plenty of information of old age and death – but cognitive information and experiential information are two very different things. Why do we go to experienced doctor – the young medical student appearing for MD now has much more information than a practising doctor, no?
When I was young, a middle aged couple came to me for therapy. It was very obvious that they thought, “What would this young inexperienced boy know about marriage?” This is why I thought – let me do theatre and films now, get old, and then practice psychiatry! My lifetime of experience would finally mean couples like them would trust me!
We spoke of Othello and Oedipus, and how playwrights very often inform psychiatrists and psychologists – a whole theory of psychoanalysis comes from the mind of a playwright! This has me believing that a play is neither total fiction, nor total reality. Simply because the events aren’t unravelling in the outer world doesn’t mean it isn’t being performed in the inner one. And these writers of genius know exactly what the characters desire, which is what makes them so distinct!
This reminds me of a preface you should read—no, a letter, written by Ingmar Bergman to the cast and crew of the film ‘Face to Face’, in which he says that he treats dreams as extensions of reality. It makes sense. When something happens in your mind but not in truth, it is an extension of your reality. If you meet someone, like them, and part, wishing afterwards that you would’ve shaken hands when saying goodbye or given them a hug – these are an extension of your desired reality. These desires often find their way into literature.
I have always felt that when writers of genius put something on paper, it must be done in an altered state of consciousness. When you are deeply involved in something, you mentally leave the space and time that you physically inhabit.
Let’s not forget that we can talk – you and me – about Shakespeare and Sophocles because we are collectively familiar with them. However, if I was to talk of Mahesh Elkunchwar’s plays? Or C. T. Khanolkar’s?
Indian theatre literature – Marathi literature! – is pretty rich. Twenty five years ago, I did a seminar called ‘Natak Aur Manovikruti’ – what is ‘manovikruti’ in English? You know ‘prakruti’ and ‘vikruti’, yes? ‘Nature’ and ‘aberration’ – and manovikruti is aberration of the mind. The seminar was about the disorders of the mind that are expressed in literature. I wanted to show that what is reflected in plays by writers of genius is so authentic that one can learn from it.
When we did this seminar, we took a play of each playwright – we took Tendulkar’s ‘Gidhade’, Alekar’s ‘Mahapur’, Elkunchwar’s ‘Vasanakand’, C. T. Khanolkar’s ‘Avadhya’, Jaywant Dalvi’s ‘Barrister’. I selected another play for the mix to illustrate how when a writer is not gifted, he tries to artificially put things together by merely reading. When we took these plays, we asked good psychiatrists and psychologists who write papers about these characters.
A few years ago, being gay was a ‘vikruti’, it was abnormal. Now it is not. The concept of normalcy changes with time, place and culture. We see a character in Dalvi’s ‘Barrister’who has subtle traits of homosexuality, and enjoys voyeurism. We see an incestuous relationship in Elkunchwar’s ‘Vasanakand’.”
What does ‘vasana’ mean?
“You know ‘vasana’! It means lust, it’s a very commonly used word in Marathi.”
This is turning into a vocabulary lesson!
“But it is understandable that you don’t know – you are still young! ‘Vasanakand’ the story of an incestuous relationship between brother and sister, something that is considered largely abnormal in society – a great piece of writing. So you realise – from textbooks, you get information. If you want to convert this information into knowledge and wisdom, you need life and literature.
What is knowledge? It is information that has been processed. Each one of us processes it differently – that is why we are so individualistic. There is cognitive knowledge, and then there is the sensory kind that we acquire from watching, observing, listening, smelling.
Next, there is text and subtext. As a theatre performer I have to say text, but communicate subtext. Our ways have
changed. If I had to say “I love you” – how would I express my love to you? Fifty years ago, at an appropriate time, I would look at you – and from my look you would know what I have in mind. You would turn away your face, but– why you are laughing?!
This is a common experience, everyone can relate to it! But now even if I try to express it, everyone needs to be told. You see American and European films? In them, the husband tells the wife – “My darling, I love you so much, so much.” Now imagine an Indian film, and a husband telling his Indian wife, “Oh darling I love y–” – she is going to start suspecting him. “You must be having an affair! Why do you need to tell me?! You are lacking in your behaviour!”
And now you are laughing again.”
(There is a pause in conversation as crackling peels of laughter translate poorly across a Bombay-Pune Skype call.)
“You see, in a cognitive culture there is no focus on developing sensitivity. In the earlier films by Shantaram baapu, how was love expressed between two people? Today, you turn and you go cling and jump and hug and kiss! It has so much to do with the passing of time. Emotions are universal, but the expression of emotion changes with time, space and culture. Language evolved as a precise mode of communication– these days, do we listen carefully? How many people come to mind who you think are good listeners? Notice the people you meet, just for a day. Notice how everybody only wants to talk.”
How does this connect to our larger conversation about Indian literature and psychiatry?
“I’m flooding you with concepts. We’re now becoming quite philosophical–“
No, I love it – it’s triggering ideas!
“What I am saying is, we focus too much on dialogue now. You know what Adoor Gopalakrishnan – one of the intelligent, good filmmakers from the South and known all over the world – once said? That the term ‘talkies’ – for films after the silent era when dialogue came into the picture (literally!) – was a misnomer. Television should be called talkies – don’t miss much if you skip scenes, it’s all talk – and films called movies, because they are about the moving image.”
“Theatre is all about reading between the lines. What is the main difference between reading a book and watching a play? In the former, there exists a four page description that may help you generate that smell, that sound in your mind – whereas in a play, there is sound already, words also, images too. Concurrently, three centres in the brain are processing information from the latter – whereas when you read only one centre sends secondary signals to your image and sound centres.”
Movies – not plays so much, I wonder why – are often accused of stunting one’s imagination because they show one everything–
“Oh, but writers do the same thing! You read words that are penned by somebody else and use them as a crutch!”
A book isn’t a crutch though, it’s a beginning – it doesn’t help with the visuals, it merely gives one the words…
“It gives you words, exactly! They are not yours.”
No, they’re not ours.
“They’re somebody else’s. This imagination is borrowed! If someone accuses movies and theatre, I accuse books! You know, when I saw a library for the first time I got scared! How much time would I need to read all these books in order to become intelligent, I wondered? My second thought was – these books will corrupt me. They have described things that will affect me, and I will lose my ability to have a virgin experience.
Reading and writing are acquired skills. Listening and smelling can be natural skills that can be developed into your sensory memory. All our education – before digital technology came – was focussed only on reading and writing, thereby causing swollen cognition, cerebral talk and shrunken senses. This is why we all have ego problems – the ego is a part of cognitive intelligence! We have become intelligent people without insights.”
Culturally, we all come from different understandings of body language, mannerisms and silences. How do we become good at processing and creating subtext which could be relatable across cultures?
“When a play is seen, there are overlapping areas of cognition and emotion that are collectively understood, whereas some experiences are completely particular to individuals. So, the communication which is common to all depends on how you communicate at different levels. Think Charlie Chaplin. Subtext is important in real life too – I learned it in theatre so I could use it in psychiatry!
Don’t focus on external exposure – focus on the internal aspect. There was an earthquake in Latur in 1993. I went there as a psychiatrist. Sharad Pawar went there. The army went there. M. F. Husain went there. Six months later what happened?
Sharad Pawar thought of the political decisions to be taken – what risky operations would have to be run? That is what he did.
The army did their job.
Husain returned a year later with four paintings.
We all processed the information differently! Wisdom, to me, is the skill of using our personal fund of knowledge. Medicine texts give me a lot of information. Literature helps me process that information. Formally – how strange time is in affecting change in words – when I started studying, it was ‘The Art of Medicine’, and now it is ‘The Science of Medicine’!
‘A Beautiful Mind’. ‘15 Park Avenue’. ‘Canvas’. All these movies primarily deal with a person who has schizophrenia – but the outcome of each of these individuals is different. One who understands that the stories can be different even though the collective experience is the same – that person is an artist.”
I love that thought. I have a last question for you. You once said to me in conversation that we are all schizophrenic, but we are ‘symbiotically schizophrenic’! Could you explain that?
“This is interesting. You keep on analysing, I keep on doing things that I don’t understand, and you help me understand how I do them.
Our current education system is borrowed from the West, and heroes cognitive intelligence – reason, logic etc. Our emotional upbringing remains traditional at home – a scientist working in Baba Atomic Research Centre does the puja at home, touches the feet of his mother, puts on gandha. The moment he goes into office, he puts all that aside and begins to use his cognitive brain. It doesn’t jeopardise the idea of home, or question the logic. Why am I touching my mother’s feet? What are those cultural belief systems?
We have contained the logical and illogical in the same body; there is a split but it doesn’t disturb us, and that is why it is symbiotic schizophrenia. Moreover, the trouble arises because we’re conditioned to think and analyse – we are not used to understanding and accepting.”
Symbiotic schizophrenia. I love it.
“The internet seems much better now, doesn’t it!?”
It’s the way of the world! Would you go a little bit farther from your screen, Dr. Agashe? I’m going to take a photo of us.
“You are going to take a picture of us?! How?! Can I also?”
Of course! Do you know how to take a screenshot?
“Let me get help!”
I can just send you these photos, too. It has you in the big frame and me in the little frame.
But what if I want you to be in the big frame?!”
(Ten minutes later)
End of scene.
First published in Junoon: a stage for theatre
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